Many women general counsel face subtle and blatant sexism from firm lawyers, a frustrating, demoralizing and often isolating experience, according to interviews with several female in-house leaders.
The sexism is having repercussions. Many female GCs have dropped certain outside counsel or stopped hiring them. Lack of diversity at a firm, especially in leadership roles, is seen as a red flag.
Elaine Divelbliss, the general counsel for mobile advertising company Kargo, said she sent a letter to a law firm in December about a business matter and received a “paternalistic, condescending” response. In the firm’s letter, she said outside counsel tried to convince her she “misapprehended the situation” and wanted to “explain the right way to think about it.”
Frustrated by the letter’s assumption of her incompetence and lack of understanding, despite her 20-year legal career, Divelbliss shared her experience on a Listserv of female in-house lawyers.
“And I was overwhelmed at the response. I think we all were,” she said. “The negative interactions and experiences that female attorneys in-house have had—some of them were just appalling.”
Divelbliss’ email struck a chord with Brooke Smarsh, the general counsel of Flow Commerce, who said she faced similar treatment during a phone call with a male opposing counsel that included both sides’ businesspeople.
Smarsh recounted that opposing counsel refused to compromise on any of her sides’ listed demands and screamed on the phone. When Smarsh countered with a calm demeanor, bringing up her own company’s needs, she said the opposing counsel continued to yell and dominate the conversation.
Even the opposing counsel’s client was shocked, she said. At one point, the opposing counsel’s phone line abruptly went silent. When the phone was unmuted, Smarsh said the other lawyer apologized, presumably prompted by his client.
“The businessperson on their side at the same time emailed my businessperson and said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never heard my lawyer speak to someone that way,’” Smarsh said.
In the moment, she said she strategizes ways to work around the issue and still meet her company’s needs. After such encounters are over, she’s asked other attorneys about their experiences with that particular opposing counsel. She found it’s not uncommon that the negative responses are drawn along gender lines.
Attempting to negotiate with someone who doesn’t respect women can be demoralizing, Smarsh said, though she’s always found ways to accomplish what she needed despite the setback.
“At times, it has gotten so frustrating I’ve [thought], ‘Why did I become an attorney? There has to be an easier way to make a living,’” she said. “Because it really makes you question yourself.”
Another female GC said she once dealt with opposing counsel whose junior partner dominated the conversation and ignored women on her team or treated them with contempt. She asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions at work.
“We had multiple women on our team, and he would respond addressing the men on our team, even though the men on the team were more junior than the women,” she said. “He would redirect our questions and not answer them when we asked them. But when one of the male colleagues asked the same question in a different way, he would answer it.”
Finally, she called him out—in front of his client. She said she thinks his client agreed with her because the attorney “never spoke another word in the next three months.” Senior partners led his side of negotiations from that point on.
Sarah Feingold, the GC of New York-based e-commerce company Vroom, said she’s repeatedly gotten emails and letters from firms soliciting business addressed to “Dear Sirs” or “gentlemen.” She said she tries to give firms the benefit of the doubt—it might be an old template—but “it does sour things from the beginning.”
“Language choices impact inclusivity and impact equality,” Feingold said. “Although people might say, ‘Hey, come on, you know gentlemen includes you also,’ it doesn’t. I’m not a gentleman.”
Castlight Health GC Jennifer Chaloemtiarana said her outside counsel once bypassed her to communicate with her company’s CFO instead. She said she’s also experienced outside counsel dismissing her concerns or ignoring her requests, instead offering up solutions that don’t meet the business’ needs.
Some cases of the sexism female GCs have experienced were clear-cut. But much of the time, women said it’s hard to tell whether they were being disrespected by law firm lawyers because of their gender or because of their position as in-house counsel.
Divelbliss said the two identities may be intertwined, as the GC role becomes increasingly occupied by women.
“The vast majority of partners at big law firms are men. And more and more general counsel and in-house counsel are women. So I think de facto it’s a gender-based issue,” she said.
Women who go in-house, even to top general counsel roles, may face stigmas from firm lawyers that their male counterparts don’t. That’s something Chaloemtiarana said she experienced during her transition in-house.
She said firm lawyers told her “women go in-house specifically to take on a lighter workload because they can’t handle the pressures and family balance of law firm life.” They also made comments about how in-house life must “be so much easier on your family.”
“When a man goes in-house, they’re credited with really wanting to get closer to the business. You know, ‘he’s got a business head on, and that’s why he wants to be inside a company, so he can work on strategy,’ ” Chaloemtiarana said.
Many GCs said they have dropped or would drop sexist outside counsel. They also try not to hire them to begin with.
Almost all of the eight woman interviewed said firms that don’t bring in diverse teams are a red flag. Firms with women in leadership roles and a commitment to bringing in diverse talent are more likely to get their business, several interviewed GCs said.
Feingold said she also asks firms how they treat women and other groups underrepresented in the legal field. Networks such as the women’s general counsel Listserv are a forum for in-house counsel to share experiences with outside counsel—both good and bad.
Sonia Galindo, the general counsel of Rosetta Stone, said the Listserv’s response to Divelbliss’ email inspired her to address sexism from outside counsel more often. She and other lawyers said they’ve always found ways to work with or around sexist outside counsel to get the result their client wants.
“It’s not an atypical experience unfortunately. But the email chain was an atypical response to addressing it, which I absolutely applaud and will adopt going forward,” Galindo said. “First and foremost you work the problem. But I think after the dust settles, to address the behavior is part of driving a change.”